Tools for Thinking and Tools for Systems
I’ve been obsessed with design tools the past two years, with apps like as Sketch, Figma and Photoshop perhaps being the most prolific of the bunch. We use these tools to make high fidelity mockups and ensure high quality user experiences. These tools (and others) are awesome and are generally upping our game as designers and developers, but I believe that the way they’ve changed the way we produce work and define UX will soon produce yet another new wave of tools.
In the future, I predict two separate categories of design applications: tools for thinking and tools for systems.
Let me explain.
Tools for Thinking
A short while ago Oliver Reichenstein described why we like distractions and how, in order to make great things, we need dedicated moments of focus, discipline, and concentration:
Starting and finishing need courage. There is no app or tool that will give you courage. But there are environments that encourage distraction. And there are environments that encourage you to focus.
When I read that, I thought about how the design apps I use are wonderfully powerful and built for a specific purpose—but they also encourage distraction. I rarely need mockups of an interface to be as high fidelity as the apps are capable of producing, and any time spent moving pixels around in those apps is almost a complete waste on my part.
Instead, I need a tool to focus on the complex, UX sort of work that underpins all the visual aspects of a large website, and I desperately require focus to do that work. I don’t need to select a pretty typeface, I don’t want custom colors, and I don’t care about how accurate the typographic hierarchy is compared to what is actually released. At this stage of the design process, everything is a suggestion, everything is a sketch, and that’s okay. Also, the messier the sketch, the more freedom I’ve had to experiment wildly in all directions and, crucially, there’s a lot more time to truly understand the information that I’m manipulating.
Herein lies the problem: our current tools encourage me to design the finished product first. They beg me to mess with rounded corners, colors, typefaces and stroke styles. But it's only when I’m working within a strict design system that I ever need to declare those things.
Let’s say we have a half-decent component library where we’ve decided on our typographic hierarchy, our border-radius options, and what sort of background color our buttons have. Do we really need to be so specific in our mockups? Can we be intentionally vague without using pixel-perfect mockups and instead ditch those wireframes in favor of real-life working prototypes built with components from our libraries? Others have suggested this sort of process in the past, of course, but what I find interesting here is the framing, or rather the identification of this new category of tools and the concept that a design can slowly gain fidelity over time. I reckon we shouldn’t expect one tool to carry us through the entire design process.
I believe that Balsamiq is quite possibly the closest example that we have today of what I have in mind: tools that help us think and that remove distractions so that we can focus on the larger and more important architectural, organizational and content problems that we ought to deal with first.
But there will always be a need for another set of tools as well.
Tools for Systems
I hear an awful lot of arguments against using Balsamiq-esque, low fidelity design mockups. The main complaint seems to be that they’re far too imprecise to be useful; they’re not interactive and they’re not responsive. They’re merely drawings of the final app.
A short wile ago, Dan Eden wrote an interesting piece called "The Burden of Precision" which digs into this issue a little bit:
Without engineers, our products are mere static pictures of products. A pale shadow of the finished result. At best, our designs are sandboxed emulations of the real thing; complex prototypes that demonstrate a small fraction of the real-world states the product may encounter. We spend all this time and energy using precise tools to produce perfect caricatures of things we rarely understand the complexities of making real.
I completely agree with Dan here, especially where he argues that:
The precision is introduced by the engineer, where it rightfully belongs. After all, our designs are completely useless until they are built—what exists in the users’ hands is the final design, and nothing less.
This argument reminds me of the scene in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics where the author draws a number of faces on a line with a stickman drawing on one end and a realistic drawing of a human face on the other. McCloud argues that:
The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is, I think, an important part of their special power…
Likewise, with an app that provides the ability to focus on the necessary details can be hugely beneficial to improving the quality of the interfaces we create. If we already have a component library, then why do we need to make high fidelity mockups in the first place? We already have all those parts in place:
I think what we need are tools to help us translate our low fidelity mockups into real-life working code from component libraries. We can ditch a huge part of the design process that involves adding borders and choosing fonts, because all of those decisions have already been made before and we can lean on those previous decisions to focus on the UX instead.
If we have tools to help us think, then the UX of our products, services and apps will improve exponentially because we’ll have an environment that encourages focus on the right things at the right time. We won’t be distracted by making pretty pictures.
Likewise, if we have tools to help us translate our low fidelity mockups into finished code examples—code from our own codebases mind you, not WYSIWYG generators—then we can work much faster and focus on improving our UI as a whole instead of burrowing our heads into one feature at a time. We’ll have fewer inconsistencies and our styleguides and component libraries can act as prototypes to test our designs quickly and iteratively. Airbnb’s recent explorations with Sketch is interesting but I can’t help but see those experiments as hacks on top of a complicated design tool. Instead, let us imagine an app built from the ground up that’s designed to do these sorts of system-y things and leaves the high fidelity mockup features behind.
With that being said, I think there’ll always be a demand for tools like Figma or Sketch and I know that I’ll certainly be using them for the foreseeable future. But I believe there are enormous opportunities to split our design tools up into the two categories I mentioned earlier: tools for thinking and tools for systems.